BOOKS Lawyer, author taps into own experience
Call it the tale of two cities. In fact, author and criminal defence lawyer Christopher Nowlin would probably appreciate the literary allusion. His new crime novel, Tough Tiddlywinks, shows the Lethbridge native and onetime University of Calgary philosophy major has not quite gotten over the prickly relationship he has with his adopted home of Vancouver.
He worked through some of those feelings with his debut novel, 2008’s To See the Sky, which he once described as “a dark satire of Vancouver’s inflated ego.”
His followup, which includes illustrations by the author, also takes place in contemporary Vancouver and explores the city’s various cultural factions and economic inequality. But it also involves Detroit, another big city that Nowlin found both fascinating and disturbing.
“There’s a constant throughline of Detroit in the story and I’m very interested in the history of Detroit,” says Nowlin, who will give a reading at Pages on Kensington on Tuesday. “I found it very significant from a narrative perspective. My book was inspired at the outset by the great recession, the crash of early 2008 and late 2007. I was intrigued with how the American economy and eventually the global economy was dealt a blow, levelled in a sense, over what I considered to be consumptive habits of Americans over leveraging themselves with real estate.
“I’m very interested in consumer behaviour and I wanted to address this American aspect of the great recession. To me, it’s the perfect metaphor for the expansion of American industry and growth of the American economy. And now it’s dramatically imploded and it’s struggling to survive. In and of itself, it highlights the dangers of unbridled economic growth. That’s an important theme in my story.”
As you may have surmised, Nowlin’s work tends to have an political edge to it that cuts into topical social justice issues. Tough Tiddlywinks may be a mystery about the murder of unscrupulous real-estate developer Don Dickerson, but it also explores concerns that Nowlin has about the criminal justice system. In the book, a young First Nations man, Ryan Ghostkeeper, is arrested for the murder. Other characters include an anti-development group called The Resistance led by East Vancouver’s hardcore pro-bicycling activists and a teacher from Detroit. Our protagonist is Hannah Verso, a former “trophy girlfriend” who is torn between the worlds of the wealthy and the ideological.
“There’s been a turn in my own approach to writing about what I consider to be important social issues that I felt I should change my audience,” he says.
“I’ve been writing non-fiction so long and I know those articles get circulated among academics and such, but there was a conscious decision on my part to start trying to reach a wider audience. With Tough Tiddlywinks I really thought I could now explore some of my concerns and interests with the legal system and economics and stuff with a wider-reaching format.”
Nowlin’s last high-profile case in Calgary involved defending Natalie Pasqua, who pleaded
presents his book Tough Tiddlywinks Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Pages on Kensington. guilty to manslaughter in 2008 for pushing a 17-year-old to his death between the moving cars of a CTrain after a drug dispute. The author’s non-fiction book, Judging Obscenity: A Critical History of Expert Evidence, was nominated for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing in 2003. He is often called upon by the media to discuss various legal issues, most notably as a critic of the controversial Mr. Big stings, where police pose as powerful gangsters to get confessions from those they are pretending to recruit, that are used as evidence in murder trials.
For Tough Tiddlywinks, Nowlin says he also drew from his experiences with First Nations clients, particularly in southern Alberta.
“There still are racial overtones among Canadians towards First Nations people and I’m wanting to bring that out and show that we haven’t quite gotten there in terms of always seeing First Nations accused without having presuppositions,” he said.
Born in Lethbridge, Nowlin started studying pre-engineering before getting an MA in philosophy. That led to, well, unemployment and some second-guessing about his career choice.
“With a master’s degree in philosophy, you’re not the most employable,” he said with a laugh. “I ended up living in Montreal and liking it but eventually wanting to go back to school. That’s when I went to the University of Ottawa for law school.”
He has lived in Vancouver for years. But, he admits he still has that aforementioned “mixed relationship” with the city, which helps give his fiction a satirical edge.
“I’ve never lived in a city like this,” he says. “Calgary isn’t on par. If I’m in Calgary I still sense a middle class, it’s still obvious to me. Whereas in Vancouver I find it more difficult to recognize. I see a lot of wealth around me or intense poverty. That’s what fascinates me about Vancouver.”
Tough Tiddlywinks by Christopher Nowlin explores the criminal justice system. Christopher Nowlin